Pop Addict: The Black Keys’ El Camino

Every other Thursday, Pop Addict presents infectious tunes from contemporary musicians across indie rock, pop, folk, electronica, and more.

The Black Keys: El CaminoThe Black Keys: El Camino (Nonesuch / Warner Bros., 12/6/11)

The Black Keys: “Lonely Boy”

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Earlier this year, when The Black Keys announced a new album via a used-car commercial spoof starring Bob Odenkirk, it was obvious that the band had something fun up its sleeve. The gimmick didn’t come out of nowhere, given the band’s knack for humor (see last year’s “Tighten Up” video). If anything, it felt right — with The Black Keys’ rising popularity in the last few years, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney seem to be enjoying themselves. And that’s never been more apparent than on their latest release, El Camino.

With the last decade spent tearing apart genres and sewing them back together, the blues-indie-rock outfit (which recently relocated to Nashville from Akron, Ohio) has become one of the most consistent acts around. And though many bands might crumble under the weight of mounting exposure — in the last week alone, the band has appeared on Saturday Night Live, The Colbert Report, and The Late Show with David Letterman, in addition to jump-starting a North American tour packed with numerous arena stops — the band has simply gotten more carefree. Auerbach and Carney look and sound like they’re having the times of their lives, and they probably are, even if that means adapting to their now-more-expansive surroundings. And El Camino, the band’s seventh effort in just nine years, showcases the end product of that transformation, as the duo has cultivated a bigger, more varied sound — without losing its edge.

El Camino finds The Black Keys teaming up once again with Danger Mouse to oversee production (he produced 2008 album Attach & Release as well), and the result is one of the band’s most sonically diverse offerings. Though the songs are firmly fixed in the classic Black Keys style (untamed distortion, clamoring drumming, bluesy vocals and lyrics, and noodling guitar riffs), El Camino builds on the band’s recent exploration of musical diversity and experimentation. The record incorporates bass, layered guitars, keyboards, synthesizers, and textured harmonies into the production. Nearly every track features a different type of distortion, as well as different kinds of periphery instruments. Fortunately, the experiment never feels saturated or fickle, as the band’s tried-and-true tactics of crashing cymbals and shredding solos is present more often than not.

The excellent “Dead and Gone” sounds like a gritty ’60s jamboree, chocked full of xylophones and layered harmonizes; the first single and album opener, “Lonley Boy,” starts out with a lurid de-tuned guitar riff before kick-starting into a chugging roadhouse number. “Gold on the Ceiling” features a variety of guitar sounds (think The White Stripes’ “Blue Orchid” guitars textured with elements of Queens of the Stone Age); “Little Black Submarines” starts out with a heartsick, acoustic folk arrangement before colliding with a wall of grunged-out guitars and exploding cymbals; and the alien-organ intro of “Nova Baby” feels like the band is trying something completely new before veering into more familiar territory.

More than anything, El Camino is a rock album, keeping a faster pace throughout the duration of the record and seeing how many different ways the duo can rock out without feeling redundant. And, thankfully for us, the songs never do. There is always a new twist or turn lurking around the bend, keeping us on our toes as we hear a band we should be able to put our finger on by now. But El Camino refuses to let that happen.

And though the production’s quality is flashier and more pristine than the band’s earlier DIY days, El Camino might be The Black Keys’ most easygoing record. It’s fun. It has a swagger to it that usually doesn’t appear on albums this late in a band’s career. So even though the duo is getting bigger and more famous, that hasn’t hindered Auerbach and Carney’s creative energy. If anything, the exposure has only strengthened it. They flourish in the spotlight, and it’s never been more evident than on El Camino.

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